Bible Commentator


Rabbi Moshe Reiss

John Paul II (1920-2005)

How is an Orthodox Jewish Rabbi residing in Israel to react to the first ever Polish Pope who reigned for 27 years at his death?

The first time I saw him robed as Pope he looked as I had always imagined the ancient High Priest. ‘With a robe of blue-purple and red and crimson and with bells twined of pure gold . . . a miter covered by a turban of fine blue linen’ (Ex. 39:22,24,28). Later he went to the 'Wall' which signifies the Temple which he would have officiated over had he been the High Priest. He then communicated with God as Jews do since the Temple's destruction, by placing a note – in this case of remorse - in the crevices of the Wall, apologizing for what the Christians had done do the People of Israel since it's destruction.

During his visit to Israel (in 2000) he went to 'Yad Vashem', the Museum dedicated to the Shoah. He spoke to the Chief Rabbi of Israel about their common birthplace. He remembered watching the Rabbi's grandfather taking his grandchildren to Synagogue on Sabbath mornings and asked how many grandchildren his grandfather had. Rabbi Lau said 47; seven survived. The Pope then prayed in this place which memorializes the deaths of one and half million Jewish children, for the Rabbi's dead cousins and other Jewish martyrs. He also remembered playing soccer with some of the Rabbi's cousins and singing with other Jewish boys. Perhaps because he grew up in a village where 20% of the population was Jewish he saw them as human beings rather than as the 'Other'. At Vatican II during the reign of John XXIII he spoke for the Jews and a Priest heard him speak ‘as a Prophet from experience’ (James Carroll, ‘Constantine’s Sword). In his last will and testament he mentioned only two people, his long serving personal secretary and the Chief Rabbi in Rome; he was the first Pope to visit either a Mosque or a Synagogue – the latter since the founder of his religion.

This Pope more than any other previous pontiff represents to Jews the man who changed Christian anti-Semitic theology as the ‘left hand of Christology’ from enmity of the 'Other' to the love of men proclaimed by the Jewish Jesus and his disciples who founded his Church.

I watching this Pope's death, his obvious old age, physical decay, his slurped speech, contorted face and suffering on Easter, the commemoration of  Jesus’ suffering and death and he became his theology; the affirmation of life.

I saw these events while in Great Britain and also visiting Normandy with my own grandson and helping him remember his own grandfather and granduncles landing six decades ago on Omaha and Juno Beaches.

While I visited Britain the heir to the British throne Prince Charles who upon his investiture as King will become the 'Defender of the Faith' in the Anglican Communion celebrate his second marriage. He postponed this marriage by one day due to the Pope's funeral. In the blessing of the marriage vows under the eyes of the Archbishop of Canterbury the Prince and his new wife, the Duchess of Cornwall repented their sins of adultery while each was married to another spouse over many years. One supposes that this simply proves what we all knew; that sinners and unethical behavior are unrelated to religiosity or nobility.

This Archbishop whose Church is the closest to the Catholic Church has female Priests; it is in fact one of their key theological difference (Transubstantiation – the meaning of the body of Christ in the Eucharist - being another). To affirm life and not recognize that the feminine is brought through the respect and equality of women is a non sequitur.

The changing of the role of women in the Church and in life will, in this Rabbi's opinion, be required if the next Pope is to be successful. The other issue to be resolved is the relationship to Islam as the other religion based on the Abrahamic descendancy; more on the latter in a moment.

Each of the Abrahamic religions is Patriarchal; the Book of Genesis is based on the 'Fathers'; not the 'Mothers'. Each of the 'Mothers' was barren of children until God the Father chose to give them children. They all recognized that being bereft of children they were in the first of God's book’s worthless. This despite that Rebekah, Isaac's wife being the one God chose to speak to about the problematic blessing of their two children. She and perhaps God chose Jacob, Isaac chose Esau. (See the author’s article 'The God of Abraham, Rebekah and Jacob' in the Jewish Bible Quarterly, April-June 2004). Both Abraham and his shadow son Isaac were willing to give their wives to Abimelech (father of the king) to save their own lives (Gen. 20:3; 26:8). Abraham, a powerful and loving father was even willing in an act of obedience, to sacrifice his son (Isaac in Gen. 22:2 and Ishmael in the Qur'anic commentary). Abraham did not request the mother's permission, nor as Jewish commentators note would that have been granted.  Mother’s do not sacrifice their children. As a result of the strange and strained relationships between the mother's and father’s the children of these Patriarchs and Matriarchs can only be defined as dysfunctional.

The family radically changes in God's second book Exodus. The Mosaic family is based on love, both the parents, Amram and Yochebed and the three children Aaron, Miriam and Moses. The first becomes the archetype and first High Priest and the younger two, man and woman become Prophets. Moses is surrounded by women who preserve and save his life. Moses is first noted as being born when a man and a woman from the tribe of Levi are married and he is born to them (Ex. 2:1-2). Only later in the passage do we realize Moses already had an older brother and sister. Although he appears as a first born he is not. Oldest brothers are not the most righteous in Genesis. (One wonders whether John Paul II was aware of this Jewish commentary when he called the Jews his elder brother’s.) His predecessor (but one) John XXIII stepped off his throne and sitting amongst them said to the first Jewish community he met after being installed as Pope ‘I am Joseph [Giuseppe] your brother’ (his baptized name).  Joseph while imperial was not an oldest brother and sat among his brothers (Gen. 43:33).

Jewish commentators tell us that Miriam noted to her father that the Pharaoh had ordered all male children of the Hebrews to die. Her father, the leader of the people proclaimed that all the Hebrew’s should divorce their wives so as not to procreate thus dooming the females as well. Persuaded by his daughter’s reasoning Amram remarried Yochebed and Moses was the child of this remarriage. The Pharaoh’s plan to drown all the male children was then frustrated by two midwives, whose religion is unknown to us, Shifrah and Puah (Ex. 1:15-19) who would not obey his orders. After a time, Yochebed put Moses in an ark and sets it upon the waters of the Nile. There he was found by an Egyptian princess who is named Batya (I Chron. 4:18) meaning daughter of God. She (perhaps another barren women) recognizing him as a Hebrew chooses to adopt him frustrating her own father.  Miriam, hiding in the bushes offers to find a wet-nurse for the foundling. So Yochebed nurses her own son, paid by the Egyptian treasury. Batya in fact names Moses with a princely name (Ra-Moses would mean the ‘god’ Ra’); his Hebrew name is unknown to us.

Moses learns of justice from one or both of his mothers, and reacts against injustice first against an Egyptian (Ex. 2:12) then against a Hebrew (2:13) and then to protect the seven daughters of the Priest Reuel (also called Jethro). The Priest offers one his daughters, Zipporah as a wife to Moses. God calls Moses, a man at times with slurred speech (Ex. 4:10) a ‘god’ twice (4:16, 7:1) as He gives him the mission to free His enslaved people. Zipporah saves his life by circumcising their son (Ex. 4:24-26) and thus additionally saving this mission. As a result when Moses is faced with the problem of women and inheritance he chooses to ask God, the only time he did not decide the Law (he knew from God) on his own, perhaps because he understood his male audience would need God to tell them of female equality (Num. 27:1-4; see also the author’s article ‘The Women Around Moses’ in the Jewish Bible Quarterly April-June 2005). Each member of the Mosaic family is married with children.

Jesus is also surrounded by Women who revere him, anoint him (Matt. 26:7-12), watch him die (Matt. 27:55-56), help bury him (Matt. 27:61; 28:1) act very much like his disciples (Matt. 28:5) and most importantly never betray him (Matt. 26:33-34;70;73;75). As a result they are the first to see him resurrected (Matt. 28:9-10).

To revert to the other key problem noted earlier the 'Clash of Civilizations' between the North and West and its Christian ideology and the South and its Islamic ideology. The Catholic and Christian world have failed in modern day Europe (despite the young faces at John Paul II’s funeral) but seem to be succeeding in Latin America, Africa and in Asia. In the latter two Islam is the real religious competitor; in all of these areas poverty is the real problem. Pope Paul II has proven that the theological conflict between the Jews and the Christians can be changed; can the next Pope do the same for Christian-Muslim relations? Cardinal Nicholas Cusa wrote in 1458 as the inquisition reigned and as Galileo was condemned suggesting that since the only thing we can know about God is that He is unknown  perhaps truth can also be found in other faiths even non-Abrahamic faiths. Cardinal Cusa stated that there are numerous sources of truth – including paganism. Can they all be covenants of truth and therefore require tolerances? Greek thought considered the infinite immutable; Cusa thought of God’s infinity as a line pointing forward and backwards and perhaps diagonally. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, formerly known as the ‘Holy Inquisition’) recently suggested that the ‘[Jewish] Law is the visibility of the Truth’ (‘Many Religions – One Covenant’); Cusa would probably have agreed. While Cusa’s theology was not accepted, in the days of the autos-da-fa he was not burnt at the stake. John Paul II recognized the truth to be found in Galileo and in the other of the world’s religions.

There is a connection between these two key theological problems. They revolve about the theology of life versus death. This Pope while affirming life has not recognized what most of his own people have, that life must be ordered to be lived well (personally,  globally and in his own Church). There is such a concept as improving the quality of life.  I am obviously not advocated a 'culture if death' I have already written against that (see ‘Suicide Bombing and the Culture of Death’ October 2004). But in both Africa and Asia HIV AID's may be the largest cause of death. To the Jewish and Christian prophets of the Old Testament life affirmation was against sacrifice. Abraham in the final analysis did not sacrifice his son.

Now of course I recognize that a Jewish High Priest is not a ‘Vicarius  Christi’; a Vicar of Christ; a word related not to resurrection but to the crucifixion, the Roman Cross as the symbol of death, declared so by the first self appointed Vicar-Emperor Constantine as he decided on the Nicaean creed.  The Pope is no longer simply the successor to Peter but while lower than Jesus he is as Vicarius Christi higher than Man and can since the late nineteenth century can speak infallibly.  That is what caused the Catholic Lord Acton to speculate that ‘power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. John XXIII stated that ‘I will never speak ‘ex cathedra’’ that is infallibly. Perhaps a Vatican III can correct the ‘ex cathedra’ speaking and even add what the Bishop’s agreed to, but Pope Paul VI did not, that artificial contraception was not a mortal sin.

Jeremiah, himself a Priest proclaimed against the Priesthood ideal of sacrifice in front of the Temple; he stated that God was more concerned about people being protected against the injustice of poverty (Jer. 7:5-11). He stated this in almost the same words that Jesus would use several centuries later in front of the same Temple. Jeremiah is the only celibate Prophet - he was so ordered by God (Jer. 16:2) - not for its own sake - celibacy is not a Jewish virtue -  but to proclaim life as against death. ‘They [the children] will die of deadly diseases, unlamented and unburied’ (Jer. 16:4). John Paul II grew up in a poor home and his mother died before his tenth birthday. His father and mother had already buried an infant girl and shortly after burying the wife John Paul and his father buried an older brother. John Paul’s growing up differs significantly from Moses with two mothers and a wife and Jesus with his many adoring women.

Perhaps the God of Jeremiah was telling us of the connection between sexual ethics and social justice

Many Orthodox Jewish Rabbis have recognized that contraception is acceptable where the life of the mother including the quality of her and the family’s life is downgraded by more children. The Pope’s recognition of how poverty is an injustice is seemingly  contradicted by his negating of ‘liberation theology’ (despite its seeming relationship to Jesus) as noted by his harassment of the Brazilian Franciscan Leonardo Boff (‘Church, Charism and Power’). Latin America where ‘liberation theology’ flourished is the home of almost one half of the world’s Catholics and a very significant number of its poor. It is also were many different kinds of Christianity thrive as in the decades immediately following Jesus’ death and those who envisioned his resurrection.

While I am not a Christian theologian and not well versed in Canon law, I know enough about theological arguments to suggest that the Catholic hierarchy can still affirm life – even if salvation comes from the Cross of Golgotha - while improving the quality of

those lives. An example is the controversial medical work on stem cell research. Orthodox Rabbis have defined the sacredness of life as beginning 40 days after conception, Islamic clerics as beginning after 120 days and Catholic theologians consider it beginning after conception; none is defined in the appropriate scriptural texts.

While sexual relations outside of marriage and female Priests are punished by excommunication the use of contraception is not; some sins are doctrinal some theological. (These definitions of excommunication were so declared by Pope John Paul II in 1998; the same year he issued ‘We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah’ condemning the deaths at Auschwitz) Sacredness should include not only the dead but the ill born.

Just as Moses' and Jesus’ lives surrounded by women allowed them to understand women's needs so Catholic Priests would improve their own understanding of the feminine side of God (called in Jewish theology the Shekhina – the Holy Spirit) by marrying; perhaps  at  a later date even allowing for female Catholic Priests; Jewish female Rabbis would also improve the Rabbinate.  The shortage of Priests worldwide is a serious problem. The beginning of that solution would be married Priests; there are already Priests those who convert to Catholicism from other Christian sects (both Orthodox and Protestant) and retain their marriage vows. Was Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Belgium (at a recent Press conference) when noting that women’s role in the Church needed to be expanded but were not likely to be ordained, in fact that suggesting married Priests were a more likely possibility? Women were deacons in ancient days and while less than priests they were managers of money and educators. The Catholic definition of deacons includes ‘ministers or servants’ and ‘husband’s of one wife’ (I Tim. 3:8-12).

If there were a Cardinal-Patriarch of Jerusalem and if I were given that vote I would choose Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria as the first Black Pope in a millennium and a half.  His country is composed of significant numbers of Muslims and of Christians; he is head of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue and of the Congregation for Divine Worship. I would expect he would appreciate that Muslims are not the 'other' but our (younger) siblings. And as the highest prelate in a continent where AID's is decimating the population I would hope that he would recognize that early death, poverty and orphan-hood are not requested by our merciful God who is also his Lord and Allah.